Special Ops Veteran Relied On These Products In Combat And Says You Should Too In Daily Life
After 24 years in special operations, you get an idea of what stuff works and what doesn't. These are one soldier's top picks for average folks.
- The War Zone
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Well, let’s start with a universal truism in life. Stuff. A path through any human life is populated by and littered with stuff, right? The legendary comedian and brilliant truth-teller George Carlin captured this reality in his classic comedy bit “A Place For My Stuff.” I may connect with that bit deeper in a future article, but for this article, I want to talk about stuff in a soldier’s life.
Of course, in the Army, we can’t call it just “stuff.” It is “gear” or “kit,” or sometimes, and more boringly, “OCIE”—organizational clothing and individual equipment.
But who are we kidding? It’s stuff.
What I want to discuss is a few key items across a spectrum of categories that have been my go-to “stuff” during a 24-year career filled with actual combat deployments and that remain so in my life as a civilian today. Why? Because this stuff just works. And when something works, you don’t discard it. You incorporate it into your life forever.
As a retired soldier and Army officer, most of my career has been spent in the deployable world of the special operations community. In fact, I had only one 2-year assignment that was non-tactical. As such, the concern of getting “the call” to leave home and travel far to unknown conditions was a constant one. What I carried mattered. It had to work. Every time. Replacements may not have been available for months. I needed stuff I could rely on.
So let’s get to it! Here are some of the key items that worked for me when I really needed them most and under the most demanding of conditions, and they will work marvelously for you too.
Pen & Notebook
Look, regardless of technology, soldiers will always need a pen and notebook on-hand and over many years, I have tried them all. Early on, the standard-issue green “Memoranda” notebook and Skillcraft issue pens were the norm, as every supply room had them. Just one problem. They sucked. The pens weren’t reliable and there was nothing special about the notebook.
Of course, to be tactical, the “Rite in the Rain” notebooks and pens were the rage in the early ’90s. If you were infantry or going to Ranger School, these were must-have items. You could pick these up at Clothing Sales or at the shoppettes at Fort Benning, Bragg or just about any major U.S. military base.
What I needed was a notebook/pen combination that suited my style of capturing information. I took a lot of notes and they were often combined with sketches so that tactile feel was really important. It wasn’t until the mid-2000’s that I was introduced to the perfect solution: Moleskine notebook and the uni-ball ONYX Rollerball Pen, Micro Point (0.5mm). The combination of extremely high-quality paper with the precision of the pen allowed me to effortlessly capture extremely detailed notes and illustrations. Many folks I served with, looking at my notebook, asked about what I used and adopted the same combo. To this day, an ONYX pen and a Moleskine pocket notebook (3.5” x 5.5”) are on my person at almost all times.
This is an easy gift to give to friends. Click here to purchase:
Though perhaps fading in civilian use due to smartphones, watches will always be supremely important in the military. During the build-up to and invasion of Iraq in 2003, we would hold CUB’s (Commander’s Update Brief) every 12 hours and a communications officer would announce a “time hack” in which everyone was given precise GPS time, and would ensure their watches all matched. Of course, out in the field, not only do you need the correct time, you want your timepiece to be incredibly durable.
Now, there are plenty of “ruggedized” watches out there, but I must offer a specific recommendation for the Suunto brand, simply because the Advizor model presented to me in October 2001 (by a rather shadowy operative already deployed) while deployed has served me perfectly now for 18 years. Sure it is a bit worn, but every single watch function still works perfectly. Given that it has been to combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq multiple times and taken on many climbing and hiking vacations, it is high praise indeed to say that I plan to wear it for much longer. It is a companion I want with me at all times.
Suunto’s customer service is nearly unparalleled. I have had the strap replaced twice, the front bezel replaced once, and the rear battery cover replaced once, each time under warranty or for a small fixed price. It has many features, but an altimeter, compass, barometer, and heart rate monitor (using a Polar strap) are all incredibly useful. My model is no longer available, but I strongly endorse the company. The quality and customer service are fantastic.
You can pick up an awesome and far more modern Suunto Core watch here.
The term “combat knife” or “tactical knife” is deeply impacted by Hollywood imagery. One immediately conjures the Rambo franchise. Of course, my early years in the Army were informed by those movies, and many others, so I had a huge knife mounted upside-down to my LBE (Load Bearing Equipment) for several years.
Now, large knives do have their place in the tactical world. The longer fixed blades and overall weight lend themselves to not only knife combat, but practical tasks like wood-cutting, as well. But since my duties when deployed often had me in civilian clothes, concealability became very important. The idea is to have an extremely reliable and sharp knife that can function as a defensive weapon against a foe, but still be practical enough to use in other non-lethal ways. This automatic knife can be immediately deployed with one hand and placed into use.
Enter the Benchmade 9100 Auto Stryker. Nobody absolutely requires an auto knife, but with a bit of training, one can deploy this knife in a self-defense scenario very quickly. With Benchmade, you can choose several options. I went with a tanto blade shape, as I prefer this for a self-defense knife and a serrated edge, which also is good for self-defense, but also adds functionality to the knife overall. In purely combat terms, having an initial straight edge blade provides better push cuts and a partially serrated edge allows for tearing cuts. Now, I have never used a knife on another person in my life, so my war stories about this knife are all about using it to cut meat in remote places.
I understand that auto knives have restrictions in many places in the United States and overseas. However, Benchmade also offers many manual models that are extremely high-quality and forgo any legal concerns.
You can pick up an excellent model here:
Wave. That’s it. The Leatherman Wave. Like the Suunto watch, this multitool was handed to me in 2001 and has been on my hip ever since. Leatherman is a fantastic American company. The quality of their products is top-notch and in a crowded market, that matters.
Actually, around the early 2000s, the Army began issuing a competing multitool to soldiers, the Gerber Multi-Plier. This multitool is certainly functional, but for me, the Wave beats it handily.
The two companies took very different approaches in design. The Gerber designed the pliers to be opened and used from the outside of the tool and Leatherman chose to focus on deploying 4 key tools, a 420HC knife, 420HC serrated knife, a saw, and a file from the outside, with the pliers available once the Wave is opened. I have found the ability to use the Wave’s knives from the outside (and deployable with one hand) to be the much better option.
Additionally, the Army chose to issue the blunt nose version of the Multi-Plier and the Wave has a needlenose, which I find much more useful. My original wave from 2001 still feels solid with fit and finish exactly as when it was new. The blades are incredibly sharp and can be easily sharpened when necessary.
The Wave just has the right “feel” in my hand. I trust it. And I still carry in on my belt every day. I still have the Gerber tools and two out of three are loose and rattle. The tolerances have changed over time. That tells me something about the build quality.
With any multitool, you want to train yourself to use every tool that is available to gain maximum benefit. Many people I know have never used half of what is available on their multitool. The best way to train is to ensure you have your multitool on your person at all times and, whenever you have a task that requires a tool, immediately pull out the multitool to see if it can do the job. Use the wire stripper, can opener, bit drivers, for daily tasks. Go camping and use the saw to break up tinder. All of the tools will work well and do the job.
The multitool market is vast and I own many different models from different brands, but my Leatherman Wave will never leave my side. It was made with absolute care and pride by a company founded by a man, Tim Leatherman, who saw a need and decided to do something about it. This need was to depart from the designs of other multi-use knives such as the Swiss Army Knife and add pliers. The company has excellent customer service, a key indicator of the dedication to quality any decent organization should have.
Now the original Wave has been replaced by the Wave Plus. And that is a good thing. The wire cutter is now replaceable, but to be honest, the non-replaceable wire cutter on my 2002 Wave works just fine and has only been sharpened twice. It is not the cheapest multitool out there, but take my word that you will get decades of use out of this wonderful daily companion.
Here is a link to grab a Wave Plus for yourself.
Yep. Socks. Why? Because socks matter. If you are wearing boots for 16-18 hours a day in the desert heat of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan, most military-issue options just wouldn’t cut it. Issue socks were too thin, too high and wore out quick with hand-washing, which is how you cleaned them in the field.
Once, at a training school in 1989, we were required to conduct an 18-mile road march. Speed wasn’t really the purpose, we just had to complete the march. We were told to change our socks every six miles, so we all had 3+1 pair or socks easily available, mostly in the side pockets of our all-purpose lightweight individual carrying equipment (ALICE) rucksacks. Our battle dress uniform (BDU) pockets were used for smaller meals, ready-to-eat (MRE) side dishes that can be eaten on the go and whatever “pogie bait” (candy or unauthorized food) we could sneak. The instructors really didn't care about that, however. They mostly smirked and just shook their head if they saw you drop a candy wrapper in their presence.
I was stubborn about the sock thing. I assumed those thin, worn olive drab (OD) socks would do their job and I would only change them once instead of twice. So, at roughly the 10-mile mark I stopped quickly to change my socks and add some foot powder. Well, it was a disaster. Those socks were soaked and worn and I just threw them in the ditch rather than tying them on the outside of my ruck to dry. By the time I (barely) finished the ruck march, the second pair was also trashed. I came to the conclusion that the thin socks combined with new(ish) jungle boots provided just too much space inside my boot for my feet to move around and cause friction that compromised any value the socks would have provided.
Over the years, I purchased several civilian alternatives, but to be honest, it wasn’t until my last combat deployment to Iraq in 2011 that the perfect socks arrived in a care package from my parents.
My Mom had gone to a local sports store and asked about their best hiking socks. The salesperson suggested the Point 6 brand, and boy were they pricey. But my Mom purchased three pair and sent them to me in Baghdad.
I was blown away.
These socks contain 70% New Zealand wool and that alone was a huge difference. The stitching, reinforcement, and ventilation were just perfect. I immediately purchased four more pairs of a slightly different style and was extremely satisfied. I wish I had these damn socks 10 years earlier in Afghanistan.
I think I still have five pairs today and still use them while camping and hiking. So, if you enjoy outdoor activity or have to wear socks for 12+ hours a day, I cannot recommend this brand more.
You can pick up a pair or two (they are great stocking stuffers or even holiday stockings themselves!) here.
Let’s face it, no one can argue that a good flashlight isn’t hugely important in any person's life. When called upon, they just need to work 100% of the time.
My military career had seen allegiance to several models and brands, from the original Fulton D-cell angle flashlight, which has been a ubiquitous sight in the U.S. Military since the Vietnam era, to the machined aluminum Maglite that was popularized in the 1980s. But I considered the ultimate flashlight back in 2001 to be the Surefire Centurion C3 that I was handed to me on a mountain in Afghanistan, by an operative already in place.
It originally came with a xenon/halogen bulb rated for 105 lumens. The fit and finish of the machined aluminum made it clear that this piece of kit was meant for business. I later upgraded it to a 200-lumen xenon/halogen bulb, and more recently, a third party 425-lumen LED conversion made in the USA by the excellent Malkoff Devices, Inc. With these modifications, I have a rugged flashlight that had been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq multiple times since 2001 that serves me perfectly today.
Deploying to Iraq in 2011, I flew on a chartered 747 to Kuwait and we landed in the middle of the night. The baggage was transferred to a Light Medium Tactical Vehicle (LMTV) truck and everything was unceremoniously dumped in a pile between rows of tents in complete darkness. Many of the troops were pulling out small flashlights trying to ID their bags and it was just not working. I pulled out my Surefire and climbed on top of the truck and aimed it at the pile of bags. When I turned on the torch the whole area lit up perfectly and within just a few minutes, all of the bags were sorted. Many of the younger soldiers were amazed by how bright the Surefire was compared to their lowly flashlights.
The Centurion C3 model is no longer in production, but I am sure most if not all that are out there in circulation are still working. Surefire has moved on to ultra-high-output LED flashlights that are simply amazing. The SureFire E2D Defender Ultra is a current model with a stunning 1000 lumen output (running for 2.75 hours) along with a 5-lumen mode (running for 63 hours). Rechargeable LFP 123A batteries are available as an option.
Surefire lights are certainly more expensive than Chinese knock-offs, but you will have a well-made product that is virtually indestructible when you absolutely need it the most.
You can pick up an E2D Defender Ultra here.
The military really began focusing on eye protection (or “eyepro”) in the 1980s. This led to the use of the Gargoyles sunglasses that were either issued or available on bases in the early 1990s.
Ballistic eyewear was fairly rare back then. I wore the issue Gargoyles on my tour in Haiti in 1994-1995. This was mostly for protection from the searing sun, as it was not a deployment that involved combat. Over the years, the military continued to issue eyepro made by other manufacturers, such as Revision, Wiley X, ESS, and, while useful, none of them were of the best quality.
By the late 1990s, Oakley had established itself firmly in the “performance eyewear” market, mostly for sports use. Their M-Frame models became immediately popular with the SOF community. Not just for the “cool guy” look, but because of the easily interchangeable lenses and nose pieces. The lenses offered excellent mil-spec ballistic protection and just about zero distortion.
The M-Frame you see here has been in constant use since 2004. Of course, things happen and lenses do eventually need replacing and Oakley again provides amazing customer support, with a sizeable discount for service members and veterans. I usually deployed with at least one spare lens and nose piece just in case.
My one “combat” story about the Oakley’s had nothing to do with combat, but rather a careless young soldier. We often had the large whip antennas on our vehicles lashed down when not in use on the forward operating base (FOB) due to clearance concerns. As I approached a HMMWV once in 2003, a soldier was playing with the whip antenna and tie-down and lost his grip. He had it bent at an odd angle and as I walked around the back of the vehicle, the antenna smacked me right in the face. I did not have a helmet on as we were inside the wire and the sunglasses took a direct hit. The lens suffered an abrasion but otherwise remained intact and completely protected my eyes. Five minutes later, I swapped out the lens and was quite grateful for having worn my M-frames.
Grab the latest and greatest pair of modern Oakley M-Frames here.
Of course, a first aid item had to be included in this list. I have a fairly expanded education in first aid and trauma training due to a family very much involved in the medical professions. My mom always emphasized the need to be trained enough to help someone in need in case of an emergency.
A tourniquet is a difficult subject for people who haven’t received medical training, because if you have to apply a tourniquet, very bad things will have had to of occurred. You are likely dealing with a traumatic amputation, a very deep arterial wound, or a crush injury. However, tourniquets, and the proper skills for applying them, are absolute lifesavers in combat and this can be translated to civilian life.
The model you see here is the issue CAT (Combat Application Tourniquet) I carried in Iraq in 2011. With medical items, a military unit always needs to standardize where they are carried on the person. The reason is simple: unless you are a medic, the medical equipment you carry is meant to be used on YOU! If you cannot self-administer, your buddy needs to be able to quickly locate the medical item you require on your person and apply it.
Modern combat tourniquets are meant to be capable of self-application, but the circumstances that call for the use of one often means someone else needs to apply it. I carried three tourniquets on me when I was out in the “red zone,” one in my field medical kit, which was a pouch affixed to my body armor, one attached directly to my body armor under my right arm, and one in the ankle pocket of my army combat uniform (ACU). When I was “inside the wire,” such as in the Green Zone in Baghdad, I still always had that one available.
I once applied a tourniquet to a civilian in Fallujah in 2004. She had received a crush injury to her left leg and was bleeding profusely from several points beneath the knee. She was able to be placed on a medevac helicopter for the Ibn Sina hospital in the Green Zone within minutes. She had permanent movement damage to her leg from the injury, but thankfully, she survived.
In my opinion, everyone should be trained in the application of a tourniquet in an emergency and have one close at hand (home or car). If needed. it will be a lifesaver. I have several different versions to include the SOF models. With medical equipment like this, I definitely recommend you seek out training locally so that you can confidently use it in a crisis.
You can pick one up for your vehicle medical kit here.
A strap cutter is one of those items that was barely used in the military before the Global War on Terror (GWOT) began and therefore didn’t see much use in civilian life, outside of first responders. Now I wonder how we ever thought we could live without them.
Also referred to as a “safety hook” due to its many uses, I think every person should have one in his or her car, at a minimum. The assumption is that these tools are mainly meant for cutting seat belts away after an accident and that is indeed a key function. But a well-made strap cutter can cut away boots, shoes, clothing and just about anything else required in an emergency to gain movement or access.
I have only used my strap cutter once and it wasn’t even in combat. I was participating in an airborne operation at Ste Mere Eglise Drop Zone on Fort Bragg in 2006 and the winds picked up a bit as we landed. A fellow jumper was unable to deflate her parachute (by disconnecting using the canopy release assembly) and the winds pulled her violently across the drop zone. She lost consciousness after striking rocks or wood. When I and another jumper made it to her she was still unconscious and bleeding in several areas.
The jump was halted and the Ambulance HMMWV was coming toward us. The other jumper collapsed the parachute by jumping on it and laying spread-eagle, while I disconnected the parachute from the harness. Rather than jostle the injured jumper by using the normal method to remove the harness, I simply used my strap-cutter to slice all of the straps so she could be simply lifted onto a stretcher.
I realized I had never even tested the strap cutter before and I was amazed at how intuitively I was able to slice through the straps, which were by design very strong. After that, I went to our Rigger’s shed and grabbed some old strapping material and handed it out to everyone I worked with to test out their strap cutters before they needed to use them in an emergency.
The injured officer was fine, by the way. Just beat up a little in the face and ego.
I definitely recommend you pick up a strap-cutter and keep it close in your vehicle. This Benchmade model is absolutely great.
Here is a less expensive and smaller option:
Of course, it stands to reason that gloves are very important in the life of a military person. My time spent in the military could be very easily marked by a series of gloves. Many veterans here will recall, without fondness, the dreaded D-3A leather shell and wool liner combination. I think they were well-intentioned, with the military realizing that having a tough leather work glove was extremely important and then simply adding a wool liner would convert them to decent moderately cold-weather gloves. They only had one flaw...
The shell was not thick enough for anything more than light-duty (they would wear down fast when rappelling, for example). The wool liners were very flimsy and when combined with the shell, the fit was always awkward and most dexterity was lost. I was happy to see them go away in the 1990s.
Now, with the introduction of the unique environment of sustained combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, most deployed troops simply purchased their own gloves to wear for that tactical environment. In the early years, Mechanix-brand gloves were quite popular, with a good fit, breathability and strong grip coupled with a reasonable price. There was one problem, these early versions did not meet the fire-resistant needs that became apparent with the advent of VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) attacks.
Though Mechanix quickly realized this and developed a great line of true tactical gloves meeting the needs of deploying soldiers, I decided to switch to the Oakley Factory Pilot gloves. The deciding factor was the fit and comfort level. I think anyone selecting gloves for tactical or sustained work use should consider this, as there are many quality choices out there. These Oakley gloves stayed clipped to a D-ring on my body armor and I donned them every time I was mobile. In the intense heat of the Arabian Peninsula, these gloves were just perfect with the venting.
The gloves consist of Oakley’s proprietary “1981 Unobtanium” material to increase grip, with 70% goatskin rounded out by various other materials to aid elasticity.
I have owned this pair since 2009 and they have endured two deployments and they are always in my vehicle today, in case of emergency. Very highly recommended to at least give them a try.
You can pick up a pair here.
"Toss me the hundred mile an hour tape." What? Young me in the Army had no idea what the hell that meant. Then the sergeant pointed to what was very obviously duck tape sitting on the table. I asked him why he called it 100mph tape and he said “Because it’s strong enough to stand up to hurricane-force winds." That seemed like a fair answer.
Little did I know at that time in the mid-1980s that 100mph tape would be a constant companion in my long military career.
Of course, popular media is littered with discussions about duct tape and many entertaining applications, so it isn’t easy to add to the cacophony of war stories out there. When I was a platoon leader, we made it standard operating procedure that a fresh roll of 100mph tape was secured inside every vehicle with parachute cord. It was essentially the “universal repair tool” for us.
I still have plenty of digital-pattern rolls leftover from my time in the military, but you can pick up a role of military-grade (conforms to the military-specification ATSM-D 5486 Type IV Class I) 100mph tape here:
Of course, anyone who is a fan of outdoor activities knows the value of a good belt. For myself, a medium-duty web belt and a heavy-duty tactical rigger's belt meet about all of my needs. The lore goes that some “high-speed” operators were fed up with the flimsy belts they had been issued, but noticed that the rigging straps for airborne operations were not only very strong, but could fit in existing belt loops that were 1 and 3/4" wide.
Belts were fashioned from this material and mated with parachute-grade buckles, a D-ring, and thus the ultimate tactical belt was born. Blackhawk makes an excellent rigger's belt and it is practically standardized in the special operations forces world.
Web belts are similar to rigger's belts in that they are made out of similar nylon material with the same width, but have much less tensile strength and are thus best served as light- to medium-duty belts. A web belt can keep your pants up while holding a handgun, a magazine case, and a multitool, but that’s about it.
If you need something that could easily hold your own weight and has a fastening system that will absolutely not fail, a true rigger's belt is the only way to go. I own several of each type. For the most part, a good web belt is fine for day-to-day use.
Keep in mind that these belts have multiple uses. They can be used to secure a splint to an injured arm or leg. They can be used to bundle collected firewood together in the woods while camping. A rigger's belt is even strong enough to be used as a tow strap if necessary.
You can pick up a quality Blackhawk Rigger's Belt here.
You can pick up a great web belt here:
So ends this introductory discussion of “stuff” that was important elements in my military deployments for many years and remains important in my life as a civilian today. Some of the items are expensive and some are very inexpensive. The most important consideration for these tools is that they have a practical purpose and you can rely on them to serve you every time. In many of these cases, this functionality is greatly enhanced by the company behind them being absolutely dedicated to quality and standing by their products long after purchase.
Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com